People who have the time and inclination to think about such things tend, more often than not, to believe that Karl Marx is the intellectual godfather of socialism, a term that is often used interchangeably with “Marxism,” after all. The fact of the matter, however, is that socialism’s history far predates Marx.
If any post-Enlightenment figure can be legitimately labeled the godfather of socialism or of Leftism more generally, I’d suggest that it is not Marx, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-century Swiss philosopher who “set the world on fire,” and, in so doing, inspired the French Revolution and set the terms of the socioeconomic debate that continue to this day.
Among other things, Rousseau made two critical arguments that form the foundation of Leftist economic thinking. First, he railed openly and spitefully against the notion that government exists, in large part, to protect private property. As he put it in his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (the “Second Discourse”):
The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
The second key argument Rousseau made, which might be even more critical to our understanding of the contemporary Left, was that the Judeo-Christian notion of original sin was a monumental hoax, that man, in his “natural” state, was nearly perfect; that society made him evil. Or, as he put it, again in his Second Discourse:
Observation fully confirms what reflection teaches us on this subject: Savage man and civilized man differ so much in their innermost heart and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of the one would reduce the other to despair. The first breathes nothing but repose and freedom, he wants only to live and remain idle, and even the Stoic’s ataraxia does not approximate his profound indifference to everything else.
By contrast, the Citizen, forever active, sweats and scurries, constantly in search of ever more strenuous occupations: he works to the death, even rushes toward it in order to be in a position to live, or renounces life in order to acquire immortality. He courts the great whom he hates, and the rich whom he despises; he spares nothing to attain the honor of serving them; he vaingloriously boasts of his baseness and of their protection and, proud of his slavery, he speaks contemptuously of those who have not the honor of sharing it.
By adopting, discussing and brilliantly framing these two principles in particular, Rousseau not only set the agenda for the modern Left – collectivist, anti-materialist, austere, and anti-capitalist – but also provided a point of connection between contemporary socialism and its much, much older ancestor. You see, even though Rousseau may well have been the intellectual godfather of the Left, the demands, values and aspirations of socialism, Marxism, Leftism all predate even him – by as much as four hundred years.
As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, nearly sixty years ago, the British historian Norman Cohn published one of the most fascinating and important history books of the twentieth century. That book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, traced the history of the religious millenarian (chiliastic) tradition – essentially Christian salvationism – from Judaism to Christianity and throughout the medieval West.
According to Professor Cohn, one of the most persistent social myths in Western civilization is that which he has termed the “egalitarian State of Nature,” which posits the belief that man’s natural, pre-historical state was a “Golden Age” “in which all men were equal in status and wealth and in which no one was oppressed or exploited by anyone else; a state of affairs characterized by universal good faith and brotherly love and also, sometimes, by total community of property and even spouses.”
Cohn then notes that it was only natural that this myth of the egalitarian State of Nature would eventually give rise to the “egalitarian Millennium,” which is to say that the social myth would eventually morph into a revolutionary myth, which posited a preordained return to the Golden Age in the immediate future.
And so it was that from the 14th century on, the idea that human society was on the verge of a great revolution that would end the current mean state of affairs and return mankind to its natural, pre-historical condition, was ascendant in Western civilization. Many social upheavals of the Reformation era, from the Hussite (Taborite) rebellion in Bohemia to Thomas Muntzer and the Peasant’s War in Germany, to militant Anabaptism throughout central Europe, were anarcho-communistic movements that assailed the powerful institutions of human society – the “prince,” the “rich,” and most notably, the Catholic Church – and promised their adherents the elimination of these “unnatural” institutions and a return to the true, egalitarian natural state.
These movements served as the intellectual and spiritual precursors to later, post-Christian movements that also promised egalitarian utopias. As Cohn put it, “the old religious idiom has been replaced by a secular one,” as the revolution against “the great ones” (i.e. “the powerful”) was revised to fit a purely secular context. That is to say that the intellectual roots of the post-Enlightenment, quasi-religious radical egalitarian movements – from Utopian socialism right up to Marxism – can be traced backward to Rousseau and then back from Rousseau, through the early peasants’ revolts and the overtly religious eschatological rebellions, right back to the State of Nature myth.
Because of the work of Cohn and his near-contemporary, the inimitable moral philosopher Eric Voegelin, today we understand a great deal about radical egalitarian Leftism that was largely not understood prior to the 1950s. We not only understand, for example, the history of Leftist egalitarianism, but also the conditions under which it tends to manifest itself. As Cohn put it, “revolutionary millenarianism flourishes only in those certain specific social situations,” in which “there existed an unorganized, atomized population, rural or urban or both,” that was “living on the margins of society. . . .” Economic, cultural, and spiritual “dislocation” and “disorientation” are the essential precursors to egalitarian upheaval and serve, more or less, as omens of class-based discord to come.
All of this is, I think, important to keep in mind as many parts of the global community continue to suffer from the societal disruption caused by globalization and the uneven economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Many observers in politics, religion, and especially the mainstream media have suggested that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, is intent on reviving Liberation Theology, the famous/infamous amalgamation of Marxist and Christian teachings that was immensely popular in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in Latin America. And indeed, at the Vatican several weeks ago, the Pope hosted Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest credited with the creation of Liberation Theology. It was Fr. Gutierrez’s second visit to Rome since Francis ascended to the Papacy. Unlike the media, I won’t bother even to pretend to know what is in the Holy Father’s heart with respect to Fr. Gutierrez and Liberation Theology and will note only that this Pope in particular possesses a deep, abiding, and perhaps paramount concern for the world’s poor.
Some, more conservative, observers have wondered how the Marxist notions contained in Liberation Theology survive, despite Marxism’s brutally-disastrous track record in the real world (see, for example, present-day Venezuela). What these observers don’t seem to understand, though, is that this track record is irrelevant. Rousseau’s influence didn’t wane simply because the French Revolution turned on itself and then turned horrifyingly bloody. And likewise, the longstanding near-universal appeal of the “egalitarian state of nature” and the “egalitarian millennium” haven’t been dampened by nearly seven hundred years of continuous failure. Wherever there is radical “dislocation” and “disorientation” that push people to “the margins of society,” there is the risk of egalitarian revolutionary fervor.
Pope Francis is right, I’d argue, to worry greatly about the desperately poor and marginalized – even to the point of enlisting the aid of erstwhile Marxist fusionists like Fr. Gutierrez. For their sake and for civilization’s, bringing them back from the margins of society is noble, understandable, and perhaps even pressing.